In Praise of the Salt Marsh

by Feb 9, 2024Nature, Online Exclusives, South Brunswick

The Brunswick beaches’ great grasslands are like the Midwest Great Plains on the coast.

“Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, amber waves and the fruited plain!” The authors of America the Beautiful got it right. They perfectly describe the grasslands of … the South Brunswick beaches! Not to take away from the majesty of the Great American Plains one iota. But has it ever occurred to you how the north side of our very own islands appear so royally like our continental Midwest?

Protected by the beach dunes and stretching flat and as far as the eye can see to the Intracoastal Waterway are thousands of acres of amber salt marsh. These are the prairies where rivers meet the ocean and fresh and salt waters mix. They are part of the 2.2 million acres of such wetlands in North Carolina known as estuaries. And just as the mighty mid-country winds charm the Kansas wheatgrasses to sway to and fro, so too do our tall maritime grasses dance in the breeze.

Sunset Beach Bird Island Grasslands

Our gorgeous eastern and Midwest plains have so much more in common! They are two of the most biologically productive ecosystems on earth. Dozens of food products are born in the Midwest, where agriculture drives the economy for the people who live there.

Wheat is the king of the litany of crops. And here at home, the Bird Island Stewards teach that our plains are the prime nursery for seafood.

More than two-thirds of the fish and shellfish we eat spend some part of their lives in estuaries. Our twinned plains abundantly feed our region and the nation.

Sunset & Bird Island Grasslands

Both regions are also similar in that they support a diverse array of wildlife, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects that depend on native plants for food and shelter.

The salt marsh floods twice daily with lunar tides, which bring food to crabs, fish, snails and mussels.

Wading birds and shore birds come to feed at low tide.

salt marsh sign Bird Island nature trail

The old American folk song goes: “Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play.” Even in our ever-increasingly populated nation, visitors to the prairies can still encounter hundreds of antelope in herds. And a hiker gently marching the high marshes on our local islands may be fortunate to spot a family of white-tailed deer foraging for nutrient-rich plants.
And still there is more to compare.

The roots of the grasses in both places filter and purify the waters that flow through them, even as they hold the soil together to keep it from being washed away by wind and water.

They are satisfying places to walk, meditate, enjoy nature and learn about the Native Americans and European settlers who came before us. If you are headed west, you might consider going on foot through the 2,200-mile Great Plains Trail. Slightly longer than the Appalachian Trail, it is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.

Ocean Isle Beach Grasslands

But if you would rather stay nearby, you can take your pick of a couple of magnificent trails that would take less than a couple of hours to enjoy. Start with the series of boardwalks that meander through the grasslands at East Sixth Street in Ocean Isle Beach. Or traverse the half-mile Bird Island Reserve nature trail adjacent to the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. Bring your camera and remember to crown your good with brotherhood — from sea to shining sea!

Note: Thanks to Bird Island Stewards, North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve, Wikipedia, National Geographic, The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, The National Deer Association and Microsoft Search for the great tidbits.